DLC is still such a new thing in gaming that it's hard to say if anyone has gotten it exactly right. Maybe BioWare? Maybe Rockstar? Maybe Bethesda? The people at Naughty Dog are taking a crack at it this week with the release of some single-player DLC for The Last of Us. They took their own path, wisely or not.
Without spoiling anything, they told me how, for better or worse, they approached making this week's The Last of Us: Left Behind prequel DLC.
Hey, talented and tired game designers, you just finished a game you spent years making, want to make more of it? The Last of Us' creative director Neil Druckmann told me they basically got asked that. "Our boss called us in and said hey there's an opportunity here, do you want to take advantage of it?"
Could they have said no? "Yeah. Easily." But he and game director Bruce Straley went for it.
"We spent the next several days saying, 'Let's explore this,' because it's something we have wanted to do in the past. We haven't thought about it in the context of The Last of Us. What if we did this? And we, like explored a few different ideas and we kept coming back to this gap between the story we told in the comic book that's kind of a prequel about how Ellie met this girl Riley and how it affected her and the beginning of when Joel met Ellie.
"When we talked about what we could do gameplay-wise and narrative-wise and how that story could stand on its own—but at the same time give you new insight into who Ellie is and the events you've seen with her—that got really exciting.
"We said, 'Well, we've never done this. That seems like a great challenge, so let's do it.'"
The Last of Us came out in June. The Last of Us DLC is coming out this week. It's February, if you didn't know. That's quite a few months. Druckmann and Straley actually took time off after finishing the game and then started Left Behind.
"We initially said, 'Okay we'll come out in November,'" Druckmann remembered. "And then we were like, 'Ah, it'll be December for the holiday season,' and then, when we finally fleshed out the outline for the story, we realized there was no way we would hit December, so definitely January..."
Both men laughed when he said this.
"And then Naughty Dog perfectionism took hold," Straley interjected
"'This ending sequence doesn't work,'" Druckmann remembered thinking. "We rethought it and added this whole new setpiece and said, 'We need another month. Okay, February."
"The great thing about having that flexibility—and maybe that doesn't work for the greatest business model, because you want that hit [of DLC] to be a little earlier—but we know it has to be a certain quality when it comes out of Naughty Dog's doors," Straley said. "The fans appreciate it. And we're really proud of it."
Added Druckmann: "We're willing to eat some sales to put out something we're really proud of."
What? See that line? How about I print it again and bold it, because, that's something else.
Druckmann: "We're willing to eat some sales to put out something we're really proud of."
Please, more of that, brave game creators and companies, though try not to put yourselves out of business or anything.
Oh boy. I can already sense gaming critics getting the blame if Left Behind stinks.
"With The Last of Us, we felt we went way past our comfort zone with how few combat encounters there are, as far as keeping the player's engagement," Druckmann said. "And we saw in almost every review, people said either it was just right or there was too much combat. We said, 'Oh, that's surprising.' So with this, we were like, 'Okay, let's go way past...'
"Okay, fuckers!" Straley interjected, laughing with great endearment. His tone was a playful kind of "We'll show you!"
The guys say there's a lower percentage of combat in the DLC than there was in the main game. The team worked on other ways to keep the player engaged.
Druckmann said they decided on a story first and then worried about how much to charge later, not really targeting a gameplay-hours count. He said they got their count for The Last of Us wrong anyway (he thought it was going to be their tightest and perhaps shortest game; it wasn't).
That all sounds like set-up for Left Beind being a bit short. But what if... what if the number of hours in a game didn't matter? I brought up the recent controversy over the apparent brevity of Meal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.
"We understand that length is an issue," Straley said, "but it's more like, 'Did you get something out of this that you feel actually changed your perception of those characters or the world or that affected emotionally?' And if we did that then that's what we're ultimately trying for. We want to emotionally engage our players. And hopefully people will feel that that emotional engagement was enough. We're gambling on that idea. But we don't know. We're about to find out real soon."
Okay. This one I have heard before from lots of other top developers who get a chance to make DLC after making a huge game. They all seem to love the experience of making something short.
"The timespan to do something efficient and clean and of a quality level we're proud of with the storytelling and gameplay we're proud of is super-intriguing," Straley said.
"And I guess," Druckmann added, "because it's smaller and maybe it's a mindset thing—because I don't know if this is really true—I felt like we could experiment more and take more chances with the gameplay."
As I pressed them to think of the role DLC plays with games and how it might compare to other forms of entertainment, Druckmann suggested that add-on content like Left Behind might be the equivalent of Pixar making a short to accompany a full-length movie. "Maybe shorter-form games is a thing that we can supplement our longer games with," he pondered. "Who knows, if this does well for us then there's ideas where you don't have do one of these in an existing world. You do one that's completely on its own."
How does that all sound to you, gamers?
I can't pretend that what Druckmann and Straley said about Left Behind is anything less than exactly what I'd like game creators to be thinking of when they make single-player DLC. I'll find out later this week if, creatively, their approach worked. So can you. The Last of Us: Left Behind will be out on Valentine's Day, $15, download-only on the PS3. It's a prequel to The Last of Us, and my hopes for it are now quite high.